By Sarah Gizaw
Melanie Sloan is the Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a non-profit government watchdog group. Sloan attended the University of Chicago, where received her B.A. and J.D. Prior to CREW, Sloan served as Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia and as counsel for several members of Congress. Sloan also represented retired CIA officer Valerie Plame in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in United States v. Libby.
What prompted you to found CREW? Was it one specific instance of corruption that shocked you or was it a general sense that Washington needed work?
It was a general sense that Washington needed work in the Tom DeLay era. It was really because of the way the former House majority leader was running Washington and the fact that most Americans had no idea what he was doing. In Washington, it was just considered the way things were done. If you told people some of the details outside Washington, they’d be shocked and it seemed like that needed to be highlighted. People’s complacency with the status quo needed to be upended.
Describe the typical methods of corruption in government?
It’s campaign contributions. It’s basically a system of legalized bribery. People routinely do favors in return for campaign contributions. Some of it is just human nature — you are likely to help the people who help you. For example, if there’s somebody who’s been a bundler for you, bringing in contribution after contribution for a decade and then suddenly they call and they have a problem, you’re at least more likely to listen to their problem. You would give them a better hearing than the person on the other side of that issue, whom you’ve never met, who has never been to campaign functions, and who hasn’t been a supporter of yours for years. I think the system itself takes advantage of human nature. But then I also think there are more outright exchanges where members of Congress will introduce legislation or send letters in response for campaign contributions.
Do you believe public financing for campaigns is a solution to this corruption?
I do. I think public financing, which I don’t expect to see anytime in the near future, would be the answer. I think many politicians would be relieved if they didn’t have to spend a significant portion of each day raising money. They hate that. Lobbyists hate being hit up for campaign contributions all the time and attending functions every morning and every night. They’d rather be with their families. So it’s a system that everybody hates, but everybody has to jump at once and change it. It doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
How have super PACs changed the relationship between candidates and donors — is there more corruption now or less? Is this legalized corruption?
I think super PACs are one of the worst things for our democracy since Watergate. The amount of money that the super PACs can throw around is enough to cause politicians to quiver with fear. It’s important to make the distinction between the super PACs and the 501(c)(4)s. The super PACs are not quite as dangerous as the 501(c)(4)s, because at least you know who the donors to the super PACs are. For example, Americans for America is a super PAC, but you know who the donors to it are, so you can at least judge its statements and put them in some context.
When it’s a 501(c)(4) organization with anonymous donors and significantly more cash flow, then we as Americans really have no idea who is behind that. However, just because we don’t know doesn’t mean that the politician who benefits from super PAC-funded negative campaign ads doesn’t know, and then we don’t know what those politicians have promised and what they’re doing in return for all of the efforts to elect them. I think that’s been incredibly destructive.
There’s a very telling quote on your website that says, “It is always easier to tear something down than to build it up.” Do you believe that watchdog groups today try to tear down or build up?
Often, it is a criticism leveled at us that we create more cynicism on the part of the American people, but I think two things. First, we can’t all hide our heads in the sand and pretend that these problems aren’t going on so that we can all be happier about our government. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Second, perhaps if we can tear down the institutions that don’t work, we can make room for change so that we can see a better future
Do you believe mass media, specifically, cable news, plays a constructive role in your work, or do you feel that the media oversimplify issues and create more problems?
I think it’s a mixed bag. I think cable news likes its sex scandals better than anything else and will over focus on those. In part, it’s because we live in a tabloid culture and sex scandals are more immediately digestible and they’re titillating. Campaign finance scandals are long, involved, complicated, and often boring for people. But those are far more serious and pose a much greater threat to our democracy than any one member of Congress’s sexual indiscretions.
Let’s talk about the IRS. How was a government agency subject to oversight able to systematically target certain groups? How did the checks on executive power fail? Whom should we hold responsible?
Well, I think the scandal has been blown out of proportion, and it is not the scandal it’s made out to be. There were employees in the IRS who created this “Be on the lookout” list. It is not as overwhelmingly conservative as it was initially portrayed. It now turns out that there were also many progressive groups on that list. I think a significant part of the problem is that the IRS is basically a tax collecting organization, and they were put in a very difficult position of judging which organizations meet the standards to be a 501(c)(4), which is a political determination. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the IRS to be in that role.
We have a larger problem with the role of 501(c)(4)s, some of which are, in fact, not following the law. I think some IRS officialsrecognizedthatpeopleareabusing this status and tried to make sure they weren’t approving more organizations that would violate their c4 status. Obviously, the whole thing didn’t go well.
The way they made their judgments was improper, but I think this is a larger problem that Congress needs to solve and this is a problem Congress is showing very little desire to solve at this point. The law regarding 501(c)(4)s should be amended, because otherwise this problem is just going to happen again.
In terms of transparency, how do you rate the Bush Administration? How do you rate the Obama Administration? Do you believe there has been real change?
The Bush Administration prided itself on its secrecy, so it had a policy where it would fight every Freedom of Information Act for press. They said that they would defend that. The Obama Administration came in promising a new level of transparency, and I don’t think they’ve met that promise. In some areas, they’ve been better. Some agencies are more transparent than others. But for example at the Department of Justice, they’re at least as secretive, if not more secretive than the Bush Administration, so I would say that there’s no change there.
What advice would you give to aspiring political activists today?
Never simply accept the way things are. If something seems wrong, you can change it, and the idea that because things are a certain way, they must always be a certain way is simply wrong.
In fact, if we see problems in our society, it is our responsibility to do something about it and not wait for others to try and fix those problems.